President Joe Biden is expected to announce Friday that he will nominate Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, to succeed Justice Stephen Breyer on the Supreme Court, according to a source familiar with the matter.
If confirmed, Jackson would become the first Black woman to serve on the court. At 51, she would also be the second-youngest justice on the current court (Justice Amy Coney Barrett turned 50 in January) and the first justice since Thurgood Marshall with significant experience as a defense lawyer.
As the successor to Breyer, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1994, Jackson would not change the court’s current 6-to-3 conservative supermajority.
Jackson was nominated to District Court just eight months ago and was confirmed by a 53-44 vote with the support of three Senate Republicans. Only David Souter, appointed by George W. Bush, came to the Supreme Court with less time on the federal appeals court — under five months in his case.
But Jackson also served eight years as a federal trial judge in Washington. At her confirmation hearing for that position, she received an endorsement from former House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who is related by marriage. (Her husband’s twin brother is the married to the sister of Ryan’s wife.)
“Our politics may differ, but my praise for Ketanji’s intellect, for her character, for her integrity, is unequivocal. She is an amazing person,” Ryan said.
Born in Washington, Jackson grew up in Miami, where her mother was a school administrator and her father was a lawyer for the Miami-Dade school board. “When people ask me why I decided to go into the legal profession,” she said in a 2017 speech, “I often tell the story of how, when I was in preschool, I would sit at the dining room table doing my homework with my father. He had all his law books stacked up, and I had all my coloring books stacked up.”
One of her uncles was a Miami police chief. Another was a police detective. A third was sentenced to life in prison for possessing a large amount of cocaine. President Barack Obama commuted his sentence in 2016.
Jackson was a national oratory champion and student body president in high school and then graduated from Harvard University and Harvard Law School. She was a Supreme Court law clerk for Breyer, who once described her as “great, brilliant, decent, with a mix of common sense and thoughtfulness.”
She met her husband, Patrick, at Harvard where he was a pre-med student. He’s now a surgeon at a Washington hospital. They have two daughters.
Jackson spent seven years in private practice and was also an assistant public defender in Washington, representing defendants who could not afford to hire a lawyer. One notable case involved a terrorism detainee at the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, who she said should not be held without charges or trial.
Asked during her appeals court confirmation about her work on that case, she said that her brother was serving in the Army in Iraq at the time and that the briefs she submitted “did not necessarily represent my personal views with regard to the war on terror.”
Jackson served on the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which sets guidelines for federal judges to follow in imposing punishment in criminal cases. She helped reduce the recommended penalties for nonviolent drug offenders.
As a judge, Jackson has no record of rulings, writings or speeches on the hot-button issues of abortion, gun rights or freedom of religion. She was on the three-judge appeals court panel that rejected former President Donald Trump’s effort to block the National Archives from giving the House Jan. 6 committee hundreds of documents from his time in the White House.
In her most notable ruling as a trial judge, Jackson said former Trump White House counsel Don McGahn was required to testify before the House Judiciary Committee.
“The primary takeaway from the past 250 years of recorded American history is that presidents are not kings,” she said in a widely quoted line from her decision.
Her ruling was overturned, however, by the appeals court on procedural grounds.
During her appeals court confirmation hearing, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, asked her what role race would play in her rulings as a judge.
“I don’t think that race plays a role in the kind of judge that I have been and that I would be in the way that you asked that question,” Jackson said. She added that “race would be the kind of thing that would be inappropriate to inject in my evaluation of a case.”
Jackson also said the diversity of her background would be an advantage. “It’s sort of like the Oliver Wendell Holmes quote, that the life of the law is not logic, it’s experience,” she said.
No date has been set for a confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, but Senate Democrats have said they want to act quickly on the nomination.
Breyer said he intends to step down after the court finishes handing down decisions from this term, in late June or early July.